THE SECOND COMING OF CARS: Will Self-Driving Cars End Congestion, Improve Safety, and Save the Environment?
Self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles (AVs), are all the buzz these days. They are already being rolled out for real-life testing; within a very few years, sooner than anyone believed possible a short while ago, they will soon be nationwide. Whether we want them or not; whether we are ready or not, they are moving from “Level 3” autonomy, where a human must be available to retake control, to "Level 5," cars that go on their own. The breathless headlines announcing their arrival amplify our society’s techno-utopian impulse, with enthusiasts (and marketers) describing the countless ways AVs will revolutionize and improve nearly every aspect of our lives and society. We are being told that autonomous vehicles will come to the rescue of our increasingly dysfunctional transportation system. Car crashes won’t happen. Pollution will decrease. Congestion will go away. Parking lanes will be turned into parks or bike lanes. Access disparities will decrease for low-income and rural areas.
At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I don’t believe it.
Change: Yes. And lots of it; much of it disruptive. But improvement? No more likely – in fact, probably less likely – than damage. The only thing that has a chance of creating a more positive outcome is proactive regulation of the product and its use. As ZipCar founder, Robin Chase, has been pointing out, we are faced with a Heaven or Hell choice. Without successful strategies to steer us towards positive outcomes, AVs will not eliminate traffic congestion, reduce aggregate vehicle miles travelled (AVT), injuries, air pollution, or the need for parking, and may actually make it all worse.
The good news is that so much of what we need to do to maximize the benefits, and avoid the catastrophes, of the seemingly inevitable onslaught of driverless cars are the common-sense things we have already started doing because they are worthwhile under any circumstances -- prioritize modes that move the most people, cause the least environmental damage, and equalize access; build more transit, bike lanes and sidewalks; price highway access, curb access and parking; etc. However, the coming of AVs means we have to do a lot more of it, sooner.
Commuter rail has been in the headlines. But it’s not really the most important part of our region’s mass transit system. About 130,300 people take a train trip each day; nearly 795,800 take a bus, trackless trolley, or the Green Line. Unfortunately, despite the lower media profile, buses and trolleys are performing even more poorly than rail.Read more
Until the 100-inches-of-snow winter of 2014-15 brought the entire 100-year-old system to its knees, and with it most of the regional economy, years of discussion about our state’s dependency on the misnamed Commuter Rail system had not broken through the public and politician’s unwillingness to raise the large amounts of revenue needed to fix things. Suddenly, we had to pay attention.
Unfortunately, we’re paying attention to the wrong things – the stoppages, the contract with Keolis, the budget shortfalls. The real problem is not the malfunctioning locomotives or the Fiscal Management Board’s short-sighted proposal to stop weekend service. The real problem is that the entire system is based on dysfunctional premises. Like being stuck in quicksand, the more we flail around the deeper we descend. Keeping the Titanic from sinking isn’t good enough if you’re living in the airplane era. What is needed is a new vision of both purpose and technology – and a new strategy for using what we already have as the foundation for a phased advance from today’s mess to that desired future.
It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue. No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission. And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values: what exactly are we trying to achieve?Read more
For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.
“It’s not the vehicles,” points out MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott, “it’s the people and places.” She’s right – transportation is not ultimately about moving things from one place to another, not about the roads or rails, but about the world that grows up around the travel routes. The value of transportation comes from the ways it improves the health, prosperity, and well-being of the lives around it. That is why LivableStreets Alliance chose its name. And that is why it is so inexplicable that the Massachusetts’ Legislature has once again “kicked the can down the road” by drastically underfunding our transportation needs.Read more
While the Seaport gets all the headlines, of Boston’s traditional neighborhoods it is Allston that is about to undergo the most dramatic change physically, economically, and demographically. As a result, it is an important case study and indicator of how the city will be implementing its commitment to Complete Streets, walkability, traffic calming, and the Mayor’s core statement that “the car is no longer king.” The good news is that there is no doubt that transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities will be included in future plans. The question is whether they will be treated as secondary, or as equals, or even (can we hope?) be given priority over Single Occupancy Vehicles – meaning cars.Read more
Massachusetts’ difficulty in finding ways to sustainably support its public transportation system (and its still-stuttering efforts to improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure) – in other words, its continuing inability to move away from overwhelming dependence on cars – is simply a specific example of a national problem. In Congress and in many states cars are still king, if only because most people have no other choice: a 2003 Harvard study found that owning a dependable car was a better predictor of finding and maintaining a job than having a GED.
As in many other jurisdictions, Massachusetts’ MBTA’s budget crisis, temporarily settled by fare hikes and service cuts, will return again next year as an even bigger and more catastrophic problem. The MBTA Board has just approved a FY13 budget that depends on $61 million in one-time and uncertain revenues – and still ends up with a $100 million funding gap in FY14. The rerun will wreak havoc not only on the 1.24 million people who use the MBTA every day but on the entire Metro-region economy. A 10% drop in T ridership, within the range of possibility for the current reductions and probably an underestimate if future cuts are needed, will cost the state economy nearly $66 million a year simply dues to increased road congestion. Even car drivers will suffer as more people are forced to get back into their cars and endure even higher levels of time-wasting congestion, injurious accidents, and greater air/water pollution.Read more
The state has, once again, announced a multi-year delay in completing the Green Line Extension, from 2014 to 2018 or 2020 or even later. Somerville is already mobilizing to fight. But they should not be fighting alone. All of us, around this entire region, have a deep stake in the outcome. As national transportation policy gets warped by the Tea Party’s opposition to anything besides unregulated automobiles, and national transportation funding remains hostage to the right-wing goal of dismantling government, letting the Green Line Extension get “kicked down the road” will weaken our ability to push dozens of other pending transit projects to completion, whether they be rail road, subway/trolley, bus, and even off-road shared-up paths. It will make our entire regional economy weaker, our environment dirtier, our options fewer.
We’re all in this together. We need to unite to demand no more delays. In fact, given that both construction and borrowing are cheaper now than they’ve been (or probably will be) for decades, it makes sense to speed up implementation and push all the way to Route 16 near Medford Square. Putting construction off until only makes it more expensive – even the state estimates that a half-decade postponement will increase the estimated $1billion bill by at least 20% — about $200 million!Read more